About six years ago, after a former friend (former because he would later introduce me to Dredg, for which he will never be forgiven) played me portions of the album It Still Moves by Kentucky based rock/folk-rock/folk-country/alt-country act My Morning Jacket, I dismissed it as being too “twangy” for my taste.
Then, about a year ago, after I had officially grown weary of nearly every album I owned, I decided to give MMJ another spin, and quickly realized that five years earlier, I was a complete fucking moron. This anger towards myself has only built since then, and came to a head recently when I purchased, and subsequently fell head-over-heels in love with their nearly perfect 1999 debut album The Tennessee Fire. Here’s to making up for lost time.
Seeing as how I’ve gone about getting into MMJ by basically listening to their discography in reverse chronological order, Tennessee Fire was a big change from what I had grown accustomed to. While their later work is quite polished, this album was recorded on a shoestring budget in a silo in Kentucky and sounds like it.
Anyone who needs their music to have a clean sound won’t enjoy this album at all. Aside from the low audio quality, there is also very noticeable reverberation on quieter songs like “Nashville To Kentucky” that may bother fidgety listeners.
I love every messy and unpolished second of this album. Despite the sometimes poor sound quality, singer-songwriter Jim James and the rest of the band find just the right balance of intimate passion to make Fire a triumph over its resources. While recent records show James and co. clearly had greater ambitions for their music, they wisely kept them in check for this record, creating a minimalistic approach that I found irresistible from the first listen.
While the album contains some great, toe-tapping “rock” numbers (“Evelyn Is Not Real,” “It’s About Twilight Now”), it shines brightest in its balladry. I am a complete sucker for acoustic ballads which are low on production value and high on sad lyrical imagery, which The Tennessee Fire has in droves. At it’s best, it’s almost on par with Bob Dylan’s early work, and that’s not praise I dish out often.
Standouts include “By My Car,” a jaded, jealous ex-lover tune, and “Picture Of You,” which in its first two minutes finds as good a harmony between music and lyrics as I have come across in a long time.
While there isn’t a weak track to be found here, the top song in my opinion is the melancholy “Butch Cassidy.” Without giving too self-indulgent a window in the the cry-baby intricacies of my personal life, I’ll just say that when James belts out a line about “defeat just hanging around,” a person like myself may be inclined to know exactly what he’s talking about.
I think what may turn some “hipsters” off to this record is the same reason I dismissed this band so foolishly years ago. Despite its indie leanings, at its core, The Tennessee Fire is (gasp!) a country album. So many mega-popular artists (Toby Keith, Kenny Chesney, etc.) have made country into such a dirty word that it becomes difficult to remember that the genre can be done well. While it’s hard to imagine a time where anything from this album would have played next to “Hicktown” on country radio, it did a great deal in helping MMJ become a band known for reaching “both hillbillies and hipsters.”
1. Heartbreakin’ Man
2. They Ran
3. The Bear
4. Nashville To Kentucky
5. Old Sept. Blues
6. If All Else Fails
7. It’s About Twilight Now
8. Evelyn Is Not Real
9. War Begun
10. Picture Of You
11. I Will Be There When You Die
12. The Dark
13. By My Car
14. Butch Cassidy
15. I Think I’m Going To Hell
It’s hard for me to write about my love of this album without feeling sort of like a fraud. As someone who used to be a sort of sneering, self-important asshole towards people who got into bands much later than I did, I can almost feel the scoffs of elder fans who didn’t take as long as I did to see the brilliance of My Morning Jacket.
But now that I am actually coming from the other perspective, all I can say is, who gives a shit? Listening to older albums with a jaded and cynical ear doesn’t make music better. If anything, it makes it worse. I do frequently kick myself for taking so long to find MMJ, (especially considering at the time of rejection I owned four Thursday albums! Barf!), but at a stage when I’ve grown bored with all but about four other acts on the planet, I am giddy as can be to have them at the forefront of my current collection.
Final Score: 9.5/10